Just ask the question!

READING TIME: 5 MINUTES

ask_questions_to_learn

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re at a meeting with a lot of high-level people, and the boss starts speaking in what appears to be ancient Greek. She’s using pure jargon, pulling up figures that look like they came from a random number generator.

You look around in a panic. Everyone else at the table is nodding, taking notes, and seemingly following along. You suddenly feel incredibly stupid. So you duck your head and start scribbling stuff down. Maybe you can decipher it later.

Then the boss finishes, turns to the table, and says, “Any questions?”

Would you ask the question?

Would you have the guts to speak up and ask for clarification?

Most people wouldn’t. (Just watch what happens when this professor starts lecturing in gibberish!)

Here’s why. We don’t want to look stupid by asking “dumb” questions, especially in group settings, because we often (mistakenly) think everyone else already knows more than we do. 

But honestly, if you’re confused, others probably are, too. And if you just asked a clarifying question, you’d be the hero of this meeting.

As explained on the brilliant Farnam Street blog:

The word for this is pluralistic ignorance...the belief that one’s private thoughts are different from those of others. The term was coined in 1932 by psychologists Daniel Katz and Floyd Allport and describes the common group situation where we privately believe one thing, but feel everyone else in the group believes something else. 

But what if your question is really, truly stupid?

No such thing. Even seemingly simple questions, like “What is a horse?” or “What is green?” can have surprisingly complex answers that reveal amazing insights. 

In other words, even simple questions are worth asking: 

Asking questions like this shows that there is much to be gained from the act of trying to answer. We can learn a lot, often more, from the work involved in answering a question than from the answer itself. There are no dumb questions. Don’t be afraid to ask them. They are the most straightforward path to learning.

You should read the whole article, but what I love is how it frames questions as a powerful tool for growth. Asking questions helps us learn, develop as leaders and people, and understand the world and ourselves.

So if you’re wondering whether it’s worth asking a question, the answer is yes. It’s one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader, and it’s the path to greater understanding, better ideas, and stronger connections with others.

Just ask the question!

But what if you’re worried about what other people will think?

This is the amazing thing about questions: they have a much bigger social payoff than you think!

Questions are a powerful social tool. But most people don’t make this connection, as Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie John explain in their fascinating HBR article, The Surprising Power of Questions

Here are my favorite takeaways: 

You probably aren’t asking enough questions.

When one of us (Alison) began studying conversations at Harvard Business School several years ago, she quickly arrived at a foundational insight: People don’t ask enough questions. In fact, among the most common complaints people make after having a conversation, such as an interview, a first date, or a work meeting, is ‘I wish [s/he] had asked me more questions’ and ‘I can’t believe [s/he] didn’t ask me any questions.

People like you better when you ask them more questions.

[We] scrutinized thousands of natural conversations among participants who were getting to know each other...The researchers told some people to ask many questions (at least nine in 15 minutes) and others to ask very few (no more than four in 15 minutes). In the online chats, the people who were randomly assigned to ask many questions were better liked by their conversation partners and learned more about their partners’ interests.

Many people don’t realize how powerful this is.

Most people don’t grasp that asking a lot of questions unlocks learning and improves interpersonal bonding. In Alison’s studies, for example, though people could accurately recall how many questions had been asked in their conversations, they didn’t intuit the link between questions and liking...people tended not to realize that question asking would influence—or had influenced—the level of amity between the conversationalists.

That’s pretty cool. Questions can be one of the best ways to create connections—not just between ideas, but between people!—and all we need to do is start asking more of them.

But what kind of questions should you ask?

Any question is a good start. But according to John and Brooks, follow-up questions have a special power:

Follow-up questions...signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care, and want to know more. People interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions  tend to feel respected and heard. An unexpected benefit of follow-up questions is that they don’t require much thought or preparation—indeed, they seem to come naturally.

I’d recommend reading the full article for insights on how to ask questions more strategically, like knowing when to keep questions open-ended (or not), choosing the right sequence and tone for questions, and being aware of how group dynamics influence both how you’re perceived and the answers you receive.

There’s a lot to absorb and unpack here, but I’ll leave you with this concluding thought from John and Brooks, because they capture the magic of questions so perfectly: 

The wellspring of all questions is wonder and curiosity and a capacity for delight. We pose and respond to queries in the belief that the magic of a conversation will produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sustained personal engagement and motivation—in our lives as well as our work—require that we are always mindful of the transformative joy of asking and answering questions.

So when in doubt, just ask the question! That’s where the good stuff begins.

67 comments

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